Home Commentary History Corner Two Bridges in the Heart of Montpelier

Two Bridges in the Heart of Montpelier

The wood-planked Rialto Bridge being used to fight a fire in the neighboring Rialto Block in 1911. The building collapsed into the river and the bridge was replaced four years later with the current bridge. Photo courtesy of the Vermont Historical Society.
This holiday season Montpelier Alive covered the Langdon Street Bridge with small white lights and illuminated the North Branch flowing under it with blue spot lights. The Rialto Bridge, just 60 yards downstream from the Langdon Street Bridge, serves as a viewing platform for this visual treat, highlighting the importance of bridges and rivers to our community.

The Rialto Bridge, built in 1916, is the older of the two structures. It is located at one of the earliest river crossings in Montpelier. Sarah Watrous’s 1821 woodcut illustration of the village of Montpelier shows two bridges: a long bridge crossing the Winooski River at Main Street and another bridge a short distance up the North Branch. The second bridge in the illustration, an arched bridge, was probably located at today’s State Street.

Early bridges at the State Street crossing were wooden plank bridges with arched surfaces. As far as we know, there was never a covered bridge at this site. In March 1875, two fires destroyed much of downtown Montpelier, but the wooden plank bridge survived. In a dramatic account, the Vermont Chronicle of Bellows Falls reported, “General Pitkin ordered the [fire] engines on to the ice-beds of the Branch, No. 4 being stationed north of the Rialto Bridge, and Nos. 5 and 2 standing south of it, behind the burning buildings.” The wooden plank bridge survived, but not the abutting buildings.

The Rialto Bridge withstood the 1875 fires but not the ravages of time and weather. In July 1880, the Vermont Watchman reported “During the past season the Rialto Bridge has been working up stream. In order to stop this a log has been put up as a brace, leaning from the bridge to the bank below.” This quick fix was evidently not sufficient to prevent the bridge from moving because just a month later the newspaper reported that the bridge was being replaced.

Because this was not a covered bridge, the wooden decking of the bridge was exposed to the elements. In 1883, just three years after it was replaced, the bridge was replanked, “the old planks having pretty much rotted out.” The same newspaper reported that “A drove of some 300 young cattle, mostly steers, passed through town Thursday, the first herd of the season.” There was no report whether the herd utilized the bridge at State Street!

Although we don’t know if cattle crossed the Rialto, a complete building made use of the bridge to get to its new home in June 1886. The Vermont Watchman reported, “The old Watchman building has crossed the Rialto Bridge and has nearly reached the spot which is to be its future site. Contrary to the expectations of many, the immense weight of the building had no apparent effect upon the bridge, which had been propped up for the occasion.” The building in question was being moved from the future site of the new post office building to an empty lot on East State Street, the second structure to make this journey.

The continual need to replace wooden planks and the fact that two buildings had been built next to the bridge that were not level with its arched surface motivated the Montpelier Board of Trade in 1915 to petition the city council to call a special city meeting to investigate the replacement of the bridge.

Not everyone was in favor of replacing the picturesque old bridge. The Barre Times opined, “If Montpelier replaces that half-moon Rialto Bridge over the North Branch with a level steel structure, it will remove one of the picturesque features of the city in favor of modernity. The change would be in keeping with the pretentious business structures being reared alongside the bridge.”

The voters of Montpelier did not listen to the editor from the neighboring city and voted to replace the bridge. In August 1915, a contract was drawn up with J.E. Cashman of Burlington, who had just finished building the city hospital in Barre, for the construction of a flat bridge made of steel girders encased in cement for a sum of $16,805. The street railway, the tracks of which crossed the bridge, paid for one-third of the cost of the new bridge.

View from the Rialto Bridge toward the Langdon Street Bridge after the latter was replaced following the 1927 flood. Photo courtesy of the Vermont Historical Society.
The citizens of Montpelier were lucky to have the Langdon Street Bridge parallel to the Rialto Bridge while it was being replaced during the end of 1915 and the beginning of 1916. Unlike the Rialto Bridge, the crossing at Langdon Street was relatively new. In fact, the entire street was new. Langdon Street was developed as a commercial street by the estate of James R. Langdon at the very end of the 19th century. 

Construction of the abutments for the Langdon Street Bridge commenced on April 8, 1899, before the annual spring freshet had passed. By April 25, the contractors on the project realized the error of their ways as the water was too high for them to do any work. By May 6 the newspaper reported that “The water in the branch has dropped as much as two feet so that work has been resumed on excavating for the abutments of the Langdon bridge.”

High water has been no stranger to the Langdon Street Bridge or the neighboring buildings. On Easter Sunday 1901, two years after the bridge had opened, water in the North Branch rose six and half feet above low water mark while people watched the scale installed on the wall beneath the bridge. Water came into several of the store basements on Langdon Street, reaching the depth of 10 inches in Langdon block No. 2. Two “force pumps” were connected to an auxiliary boiler in the rear of block No. 3 to clear out the water from No. 2.

Just a year later, Montpelier suffered from a mighty ice-induced flood. The newspaper reported, “The grinding of the ice on the iron bridge at Langdon street was especially noticeable, and the occasional snapping of a bolt added excitement to the scene.” The bridge held, but several other bridges, including the Granite Street Bridge over the Winooski River, succumbed to the force of the ice.

The Langdon Street Bridge was not as lucky during the 1927 flood, when water, not ice, was too strong for it to resist. The floodwaters tore the bridge from its abutments and pushed it against the Rialto Bridge. The larger bridge, perhaps strengthened by the buildings straddling the river on its downstream side, withstood the force of the dislodged iron bridge and other debris that was pushed up against it.

The 28-year-old Langdon Street Bridge was replaced the following year by a new Warren pony truss bridge as part of the massive bridge-replacement program that swept the state following the 1927 flood. The School Street Bridge, just upstream, was also replaced by a similar truss bridge after the flood. That bridge was replaced in 1992 with a new structure using its historic trusses. The Langdon Street Bridge was rehabilitated in 2006 so that the original trusses still support its sidewalks while a new, precast steel and concrete Inverset bridge spans the river between the trusses. The 1915 Rialto Bridge survived the 1927 flood and is still in use today, 108 years after it was built. It is scheduled to be rehabilitated in the next few years. Together, the two bridges and the river flowing under it create a visually interesting focal point in the heart of the downtown business district.